Yesterday, a friend asked for feedback on a cover letter she was preparing. She’s a recent grad from Stanford, with an incredible passion for eliminating homelessness, and a track record of achieving impossible things.
That got me thinking about cover letters in general.
I’ve heard from several volunteers that they’ve offered their services to an organization they wanted to help, and then never heard back. You’d think that should never happen, given the clear needs of nonprofits and the fact that people are offering something for free, but it can and does, most commonly because:
- The offer went to the wrong person in the organization
- The organization is not well set up to handle volunteers
- The person you sent it to is too busy
- Too many volunteers have been “flakes” and you’re lumped in with them
What goes into a good cover letter
A cover letter offering to volunteer isn’t that different from a cover letter applying for a job. You need to:
- Convey your competence
- Convey your passion
- Outline the terms of the proposed engagement
- Give them a way to follow up
Nonprofit people are, like the rest of us, busy people. (Read “The ‘Busy’ Trap” Tim Kreider’s NY Times opinion piece if you haven’t…) So, help them out by:
- Keeping the letter short, with everything they need in it (OK to attach a resume, but the letter should make your case on a stand-alone basis)
- Proving you’re not a flake by showing you’ve done your homework on them
Excerpt from Giving Back on Approach Letters
Approaching the Organization as a Volunteer
Nonprofit staff members are busy people, and they may see your offer to help as more of a burden than blessing. Many cold calls that organizations receive result in their having to spend more time to assess, train, and coordinate the prospective volunteers than those volunteers give back before losing interest. You can help demonstrate you’re serious about your intended commitment by doing your homework first, and sending a well-written approach letter answering their key questions. If you can be introduced by someone who is already a friend to the organization, that’s even better. An impressive introductory letter will answer:
- Why did you choose this cause and this organization?
- What impressed you most about the organization?
- What interactions have you had with the group so far?
- How much time do you have? When?
- What unique skills do you have?
- What would you most like to do to help? Are there specific people or projects that sound most intriguing? (You may not get your first choice, or be able to work directly with the person whose biography you saw on the website, but these expressions of interest will help them match you up.)
- Who does the organization know who knows you?
- What’s the best way to reach you?
- Do you intend to involve children in your volunteering? What are their ages?
Including a donation check along with your inquiry about volunteering is a sure way to be taken seriously.
A Sample Approach Letter
As if opening a time capsule, I was able to find an approach letter I wrote in 2004 to James Dailey, then the project manager for the Grameen Foundation’s project developing open-source software for microfinance. Although the URL to my background and interest is no longer active, the letter itself is a good example of an approach leading to a fruitful collaboration. I volunteered hundreds of hours that year for Grameen, using my technology background to help them write requirements documents and conduct an evaluation of software development firms.
From: Steve Ketchpel Sent: Friday, October 08, 2004 3:56 PM To: James Dailey Subject: MFI open-source software Hello James, You’ve been recommended to me by a couple of different people: Peter Bladin and Robert Sassor. I’m starting a yearlong project at Stanford, and am interested in helping MFIs to scale through technology. From my research so far, it seems that back-office portfolio management software is a key step to increasing the capacity and attracting new capital (through securitization). I’ve seen the moap project (though haven’t had a lot of time to dive into all the details), and it looks like it hasn’t really attracted the critical mass of developers needed to make progress. I’d like to speak with you to see what your plans are relative to efforts in this space. Peter mentioned that you were going to be in Uganda for a couple weeks, so perhaps we can schedule some time when you return? A brief background on the project & on me can be found at http://www.rdvp.org/index.php?p=project_detail&id=46 If you have recommendations on people to speak with or resources that I should review in the meantime, I’d welcome the pointers. Steven Ketchpel, Ph.D. Reuters Digital Vision Fellow Stanford University
Take the elements on the list preceding the sample letter, and craft an approach letter to your proposed organization. See if you can find the email address or direct phone number of the volunteer coordinator or executive director of the organization. If you’re ready, send your message and set events in motion for a fruitful giving-back partnership.